Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies. By KRISTTNA L. RICHARDSON. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. Pp. ix + 158. S110, [pounds sterling]65 (cloth); S40, [pounds sterling]24.99 (paper).
This book provides a plethora of information about Islamic attitudes to people with disabilities, particularly during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. The study of disabilities in Islamic sources is relatively new, so this book is an important addition to the few monographs available. Although written within a specific historical framework, Kristina Richardsons book transcends these boundaries and provides the reader with new data on the literary, legal, and theological debates on the roles that people with disabilities could hold in society and in the religious life of their communities, beyond the Mamluk and Ottoman eras.
Richardson has identified connections of disabilities among a selection of medieval authors; four of the books five chapters are dedicated to their writings, accompanied by an analysis of their attitudes to the disabilities as portrayed in their literary production. The first chapter starts with definitions (ahat, afat, iaqat) and shows that as early as the ninth century CE. entire books were devoted to disabilities, for example, leprosy, lameness, cross-eyedness, and blindness in Kitab al-Bursan wa-lurjan wa-l-hulan wa-l-'umyan by al-Jahiz (lit. he of the protruding eyeballs), compiled between 821 and 851. A century later, in Kitab al-Aghani, certain disabilities are used as nicknames to describe poets. The disabilities are always viewed as deviations from the "normative male body," that of the dark Arab male, often represented by the Prophet Muhammad. From the Prophets time until the ninth century, negative moral characteristics were attributed to people with disabilities--based on physiognomy, such as having fair hair--as al-Shafii (d. 820) is known to have done. Richardson justly concludes that this stands in clear contradiction to the accepting and non-judgmental attitudes to people with disabilities expressed in the Sharia.
The second chapter studies the writings of Shihab al-Din al-Hijazi (d. 1471) and the third two books by al-Badri (d. 1489), one discussing the deformed body, the other dedicated to ophthalmic issues. The fourth chapter concerns Abd al-Hadis (d. 1503) works on early hadith transmitters and his relationship with his student Ibn Tulun (d. 1546); the fifth chapter...